City boss Glenn Roeder looked nigh-on certain to pair Reading teenager Alex Pearce with Jason Shackell tonight after losing his “rock”, Gary Doherty, to two yellow cards and a one-match ban.
The only other alternative was to slam 38-year-old Dion Dublin back into the heart of his defence for this evening's battle-royal with promotion-hunting Stoke City, but for now Roeder appeared wary of treading that path.
“I'll think about it,” he said, handed a double selection headache in the shape of Doherty's absence from central defence and Darel Russell's exit from centre-midfield following his latest brush with officialdom at the Ricoh.
Russell will now miss two games – tonight and Saturday's trip to Sheffield United. Doherty – for reasons best known to the FA rule-book – will only be suspended for the one game. But given the expected bombardment of the Canary box by Rory Delap and Co, this is one game that Roeder could well do without losing one of the more physical players in his pack.
Dublin clearly brings that aspect to the party, but Roeder is clearly concerned that the former Manchester United and Aston Villa favourite remains a striker by both heart and inclination. His footballing radar is switched to going forward, not going back.
Dublin himself admitted that he had been caught out of position badly at the Ricoh as he filled in a few of the fast-appearing gaps at the back and it was only David Marshall's reactions that spared his blushes after Michael Mifsud burst through.
“Dion is very much – and I say this kindly – Dion is very much a centre-forward playing centre-half,” said Roeder, not about to elaborate on what, technically, the difference is. Other than to suggest that with both Pearce and Shackell at his disposal, that would be where his own, centre-half instincts would take him.
“He (Dion) is brave, he's bold, he's courageous, puts his head in where people don't put their feet, but he's played as a centre-forward all his life. And as a centre-foward who sometimes plays centre-half there's a massive difference.
“But the one thing with Dion, if I played him left wing he'd give it his best. And he'd have an idea – he's one of those footballers that are 'football intelligent' and would have an idea as to how to play every position on the pitch.”
Dublin will, inevitably, find himself hauled back into his own box for whenever the latest bomb is thrown into the Norwich box. For if Watford last Tuesday night had Leigh Bromby heaving balls into the danger-zone nigh-on from the half-way line, so tonight it will be Rory Delap with the long-throw option. The only difference comes in the trajectory – Delap firing the ball in with a much flatter arc than his Hornets' counterpart.
There is a growing sense that having a long-ball specialist is this season's 'must-have' accessory in the Championship. And given the fact that both Watford and Stoke look set to be challenging for the top two spots come the first week in May, it appears to be part of the secret to their success – hence the fact that Danny Shittu's opener against Norwich the other night was his ninth of the season. Not bad for a centre-half.
Whether that fits with this whole concept of 'playing the Norwich way' is another matter, but Roeder is certainly aware of their growing number.
“Every team tends to have one – or nearly every team anyway,” said the City chief. “So you do come across the long throw a lot in the Championship; it's well practiced and well used to.
“And Stoke have done very well. They're a team exactly like Watford – there's no surprises to their game plan. Long throws; set-plays. It's a major part of their game-plan.”
Which is why Roeder gets so annoyed when City concede a goal from a set-play; you know what's coming…
“It doesn't have to be Stoke – it can be anybody,” he said. “We lost a goal to a set-play against Bury in the first game. You're always pleased to score one, but if you concede one you're always particularly unhappy because you do have an opportunity to set yourself up, get organised and make sure you're marking the man that you have been given and deal with the ball that comes into the box.
“First is first and second is nowhere. And that's really the attitude you have to have on set-plays. You have to get to the ball first.”
Longer-term and the way to combat the set-play boys is to match them inch-for-inch; strapping lad for strapping lad – and then out-play them on the floor. Football, Roeder readily admitted, is now a big boys game; that a player's phsique is pretty much near the top of his interests as he sifts through the transfer market.
Big, however, isn't everything; size doesn't always matter as Roeder offered one little name for his summer thinking – Blackpool's Wes Hoolahan.
“If someone said who is the best player performance-wise to come to Carrow Road this season, I'd probably say one of the smallest players – Hoolahan. I thought he was absolutely fantastic. And I loved watching him play – well, I didn't love watching him play because he had the wrong colour shirt on. A marvellous player.”
Would you want to sign him, was the obvious question. “We'll wait and see.” But the point remained. Hoolahan apart, football was increasingly becoming a land of giants.
That's the reality that everyone has to deal with. “You can't get away from it – the game has gone big,” said Roeder. “Every generation is getting bigger, stronger and quicker and it is becoming harder and harder for physically small players to have an impact on the game.”
And therein lies the challenge. Not just tonight, but going forward – to build yourself a team of six-foot athletes. That can play football; that have the 'football intelligence' of a Dion Dublin. And all on a Championship income.
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